On Faith: An obligation to live and speak the truth

Years ago, while I was visiting a South American city's cathedral at a time when the country was under a brutal military regime, I overheard a tour guide complaining to his tour group that there were members of the clergy preaching politics.

This was not the role of the church, he emphasized.

"People don't come to church to hear politics," was the view he expressed. "The church should stick to religious matters."

Would you want to belong to a church that was content to sing hymns while people nearby were being tortured? Could you believe in a God who does not want the churches to confront systems that denigrate human dignity?

There are those who want the churches to be mute, arguing that "the wall of separation between church and state" requires this, even adding their own codicil, "as is found in the Constitution."

Of course, this is nowhere in the Constitution nor in law.

The First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

This Constitutional amendment protects the churches from government intrusion, but it does not place the same limitation on the churches. Clearly, there are zones into which the churches should not enter; and, it must be confessed, churches have violated this rubric.

Church communities are morally obliged to both live and speak the truth, welcomed or opposed, while taking care to speak to the larger diverse community as thoughtful teachers, not as attacking vehicles.

The "wall of separation" image given by Thomas Jefferson in his 1802 address to the Danbury Baptist Assn. is a helpful tutor — but nothing more. It tells both government and churches to practice neither advocacy nor hostility toward the other.

For example, it is inappropriate for a church to advance or impede the candidacy of one seeking public office. When I was a pastor, there were members of my own communion seeking endorsement for office.

Whether I approved or disapproved of them and their platforms, promotion or opposition would have been a violation of the distinct role of church and clergy. Conversely, there are church people who unfairly seek to stigmatize a candidate because of a single policy they oppose.

In matters of public social policy, faith communities properly enter into the dialogue by contributing a moral voice. This enriches the conversation and deepens the quality of reflection, provided it speaks to universal values and not simply the more specific beliefs of this or that church community.

If one were to deconstruct the Bible by removing passages directed to "political" themes, the Bible would be eviscerated. Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah and other prophets railed against those powers, domestic and foreign, that oppressed or were indifferent to the plight of the poor and vulnerable. It is precisely here that the churches have the strongest moral requirement to act.

Jesus was not crucified because he was a pious Jew. His conviction that every single person is sacred as a child of God compelled him to reach out, with remedy, to the sick, the hungry, the possessed, the shunned, the immigrant and widow.

He called his followers to do likewise for this is what godly people do. Jesus, in the tradition of the prophets before him, cut back and forth across the walls of separation that some wanted fortified in order to protect their self-interests. Leaders of church and state found him to be unsettling, and so it was decided to eliminate this nettlesome person, a tactic not unknown today.

Churches should be neither pro-Democrat nor pro-Republican. However, church communities that limit themselves to simple pieties and good feelings without seriously engaging contemporary issues, in fidelity to their Scriptures and best traditions, are untrue to their mission, thereby depriving the community of their historical wisdom.

Health care, immigration, education, militarization, labor, economic distribution, abortion, racism, sexism, environment, child care, education and more deserve the considered reflection and advocacy that can be offered by thousands of years of religious understanding and prayerful reflection.

Churches are to offer comfort, yes. But churches must also stir the waters. Irrelevancy is not only boring, it is the pathway to death.

WILBUR DAVIS is monsignor at Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Newport Beach.

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